Why Bulgaria is at odds with its own refugee integration law

Rasheed Allawi, left, speaks with several Iraqi and Syrian migrants and asylum seekers. Allawi himself fled Syria in 2013 and now resides in southern Bulgaria, working as a translator for the Red Cross. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Rasheed Allawi is an anomaly. A former travel guide, Allawi fled his home in northeastern Syria in 2013, paid a trafficker $350 to cross into Turkey, then another trafficker $300 to make it close to the Bulgarian border, where he was left to walk the last five hours himself.

That journey isn’t what distinguishes him from the 4.8 million Syrians who have made similarly perilous treks through Turkey, Greece, Jordan and Lebanon. What sets the 39-year-old refugee apart is that he settled in the tiny city of Stara Zagora, Bulgaria, rather than journeying further into the European Union.

If you just looked at official asylum numbers, you might think Allawi wasn’t so different at all. As of August 2016, there were a total of 12,164 asylum applications and approximately 600 rejections so far this year. This would lead one to believe that more than 11,000 asylum applications were approved — and that those thousands of refugees are now integrating into Bulgarian society, for better or worse.

In reality, only about 700 applicants have been approved in 2016 for refugee or humanitarian status, very few of whom choose to stay here, in one of Europe’s poorest countries. Allawi, who lives in southern Bulgaria and works as a translator in several refugee camps for the Red Cross, shook his head when asked if he had refugee friends in the country: “Everyone leaves,” he said.

To the majority of asylum-seekers and migrants — 7,000 people are now staying in Bulgaria’s reception and asylum centers — Bulgaria is merely a corridor. Most have their eyes on Germany, with visions of the generous social services provided there. Bulgaria’s borders, meanwhile, have become infamous for dog bites and violent pushbacks. The feeling appears to be mutual: Refugees don’t want Bulgaria, and Bulgaria doesn’t want refugees.

Xenophobia, fear mongering and asylum-seekers’ unwavering quest for Germany has made the work of refugee reception in Bulgaria a challenge and larger integration efforts nearly impossible. But with Serbia and Hungary’s borders slammed shut, and several agreements already inked with the EU, inaction is no longer an option for the Bulgarian government.

Aid workers are cautiously hanging their hope on a new integration ordinance that allows Bulgaria’s autonomous municipalities to step up and invite refugees for resettlement. The law would only apply to refugees arriving through the EU resettlement program, not current asylum-seekers. Still, for a country with no other means of integrating arrivals, it could be a fresh start.

Tough crowd

DevExplains: Refugee vs. migrant

Considering the overwhelming extent of human migration, it’s hard to keep track of the definitions prescribed for different subgroups — such as migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker. Devex breaks down what each term means, as well as why it matters to distinguish among them.

Until mid-August, Bulgaria had no integration program for asylum seekers. Now, a new law invites Bulgaria’s 264 municipalities to consider resettling refugees from Greece, Italy and Turkey, with monetary assistance from the EU’s Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Defined as a voluntary process on both sides, refugees would need to choose to settle in Bulgaria. Though there is no defined quota, Bulgaria has committed to admit up to 2,000 refugees in the next four years.

“It’s a logical next step,” Plamen Petrov, legal adviser for the National Association of Municipalities of Bulgaria, told Devex, adding that Bulgaria is obliged under EU law to adopt such an ordinance.

The ordinance symbolizes a political change where Bulgaria would need to embrace the idea of refugees staying in the country, UNHCR’s representative in Bulgaria Mathijs le Rutte told Devex, which is difficult since “there has been a lot of resistance against integration.”

The implementation of the ordinance is being tossed around like a hot potato, no one wanting to touch it for too long. The law doesn’t stipulate which government agency is responsible for managing the process, though it assigns a great deal of responsibility to individual municipalities and to the municipality association, a strategy unlikely to fast track refugee resettlement.

“As for now, we observed municipal interests and it is visible that there is no one volunteering,” Petrov told Devex. “This agreement is … how should I say … imaginary. The process is very difficult.”

A man walks toward his room at the barracks that houses Afghan migrants in Harmanli Camp, which currently houses 3,500 migrants and asylum seekers. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Poor conditions

Conditions in many of Bulgaria’s refugee reception centers, which offer the bare minimum in provisions, are often dismal, le Rutte said. He pointed to the painful slowness with which the government approves necessities such as new mattresses or blankets and the fact that money is funneled to border protection rather than integration efforts.

Bulgaria remains one of Europe’s weakest economies, rife with corruption, while nearly a quarter of the population lives at or below the poverty line. It’s not surprising, then, that “asylum shopping,” or the practice of asylum-seekers choosing to which country they’ll apply rather than applying in the first safe country they reach, doesn't sit well with many Bulgarians.

“You hear from asylum-seekers, ‘I want to be in Germany, in Sweden.’ It’s ridiculous,” said Mariana Stoyanova, program manager of Red Cross Bulgaria’s Refugee-Migrant Service. “Who asked me if I want to stay in Bulgaria?”

But talk of other destinations is just what Devex heard in Harmanli, a town in south-central Bulgaria about an hour from the Greek and Turkish borders and home to the country’s largest refugee camp. The facility is close to max capacity with 3,500 migrants and asylum-seekers — mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

At the open front gates, groups of migrants can be spotted coming and going on the 10-minute walk to the small town center. Inside, the camp sprawls. To the left, an administrative and reception building; next door, a new volleyball and basketball court looking shiny and out of place. Living quarters are determined by nationality — tucked in the back, three long, dilapidated rows of Afghan barracks. Further to the right across cracked concrete sit the four-floor buildings housing Syrians and Iraqis, and a stand-alone building for single mothers.

“Germany, of course we are all trying to get to Germany,” Afghan migrant Said Rangy told Devex in one of the dark, damp barracks serving as quarters for Afghan migrants and asylum-seekers.

Syrian asylum-seeker Mustafa Seno, who paid traffickers to bring himself, his wife and four children to Bulgaria, said the family will go to Germany. As his wife poured water from a plastic 2-liter bottle into a bucket to wash vegetables, she told Devex that the plumbing on the top floor of the barracks had been out since they arrived five days earlier.

After several such conversations, it becomes obvious why many legal interviewers for refugee status at the camp complain of asylum-seekers not showing up to their interviews and why Bulgarian language classes, originally organized by the Red Cross, no longer operate in Harmanli. No one came because no one plans on staying.

“From a humanitarian point of view, it’s extremely difficult to help someone who isn’t going to be there the next day and doesn’t want to be helped,” le Rutte said.

At the same time, there is also “worsening” xenophobia in Bulgaria, Stoyanova said. The Red Cross has stopped all public campaigns to sensitize the public to migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees because the average person just can’t — or is unwilling to — recognize the difference, she said.

The media’s distortion of refugee numbers and inflated reporting of small altercations involving asylum-seekers does little to help, le Rutte added. Though the intense fears of the Bulgarian people in embracing refugees shouldn’t be discarded either. In a survey conducted in February 2016 by German political foundation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 78 percent of adult Bulgarian citizens perceive refugees as a burden to the economy of the country, and 60 percent of adult residents believe refugees pose a threat to their country’s national security.

New ordinance, new era?

The new ordinance means little for other refugees, as it explicitly excludes anyone who is already in Bulgaria. Instead, the law references those that will or have been part of EU resettlement and relocation programs.

The bulk of the effort is still placed on border protection, rather than integration, according to le Rutte. Bulgaria in mid September asked for and received $160 million from the EU’s Emergency Assistant Instrument, the Internal Security Fund and the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund. Very little, if any, looks to be earmarked for improvements to camp conditions or provisions. The request specified using the millions to upgrade technical equipment for border control and transport vehicles to strengthen surveillance at border checks.

Right now, “the refugee and migrant issue in Bulgaria is primarily approached and addressed as an issue of national security, rather than a humanitarian issue,” le Rutte said.

Still, the new ordinance, if owned and carefully presented to the public, could set a new example. Municipalities would be responsible for providing housing, education, jobs and language courses, with the help of the Red Cross and UNHCR, for as many refugees as they deem feasible next year. If one mayor could take this on and do it successfully, it could act as a model for others.

In an effort to set up this test case, UNHCR and the Red Cross will offer assistance. During the first phase of the project, getting underway now, they’ll choose two municipalities — one large and one small —  to go through the process. Under this phase, the municipality association will hire someone responsible for integration within its own local government structure. UNHCR will pay their salary for year, after which the association will absorb that employee. The next phase, to be implemented in 2017, will be the actual integration.

Right now, UNHCR is still in talks with municipalities. Drawing on these discussions, the U.N. agency will put together a handbook for municipalities who might be interested in the future. They’ll also offer a crash course in fundraising since each interested municipality will be responsible for preparing its own project proposal to receive AMIF funding, which will be funneled first through the municipality association, according to Petrov.

As it exists, there is certainly space for abuse of the funds. The association is responsible for receiving the money from AMIF and allocating it to the municipality, which will then be responsible for managing it.

Mustafa Seno sits with his wife and two of his children in Harmanli Camp. Seno paid traffickers to bring himself, his wife and four children to Bulgaria, and said the family will go on to Germany. Photo by: Kelli Rogers / Devex

Left behind

For now, current migrants and asylum-seekers in Bulgaria are mostly on their own. Those granted asylum are supposed to move out of the reception centers and find their own housing, a difficult feat for refugees who often have a basic if any grasp on the language and few job prospects. The small numbers of people who have integrated in Bulgaria over the years faced the harsh reality that “there is no support,” according to Red Cross’ Stoyanova. “They have to work to find a way to learn Bulgarian and find work, and then they integrated.”

“There are refugees that are already here now. Who is going to pay for them?” Le Rutte said.

Le Rutte’s current priorities involve setting up a more regular official submission of protection gaps in the six reception centers and two immigration detention centers to border police, immigration and Bulgaria’s State Agency for Refugees.

Currently, mattresses in Elhovo, one of two immigration detention centers, are infested with bed bugs. In order to destroy and replace them, UNHCR needs the Bulgarian government to acknowledge the infestation.

“We’ve been waiting for four months for someone to come and say ‘yes you can see the bugs, yes you can burn the mattresses,’” le Rutte said.

In the meantime, asylum-seekers sleep on the floor — which might, according to some, be preferable to the wet, moldy mattresses in other reception centers.

Allawi maintains that Bulgaria can be a good place to live. He is, admittedly, an exception.

“Life in Bulgaria is wonderful if you have work,” Allawi told Devex. He makes at least twice the average Bulgarian wage to help translate and assist with newcomers from Syria for the Red Cross. He has also worked to learn some Bulgarian, which wins him favor with locals; he counts many of his Red Cross and UNHCR colleagues as friends, as well.

“Sometimes I say to myself that I’m very lucky,” Allawi said. “Yes I have war in my country and I haven’t spoken to my family for two years, but I have work.” Allawi doesn’t have plans to go anywhere else right now.

Majid, a Syrian refugee Devex spoke with in Vrazhdebna reception center on the outskirts of Sofia, summed up the more pervasive sentiment among refugees: “Maybe I will stay here,” he said. “But maybe I will go to Norway instead.”

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About the author

  • Rogers kelli cropped

    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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